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The Tumultuous Lives of Three Monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do

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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (left), Venerable Thich Tri Quang, and Venerable Thich Quang Do. Source: PVCEB, LIFE, AFP.

Long ago, there lived three monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do. All three were well-versed in the Buddhist Dharma. Nhat Hanh spoke eloquently and wrote well. Tri Quang had talent for leadership and was trusted by the masses. Quang Dao was well-studied and excelled in foreign languages. 

Long ago, there lived three monks.

When Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime cracked down on Buddhism, these three combined forces to fight back. Nhat Hanh campaigned overseas, calling for peace and religious freedom in Vietnam. Tri Quang led tens of thousands of monks and Buddhist adherents as they protested in Saigon. And Quang Do, the youngest of the trio, stood side-by-side with these Buddhists as they marched on the streets.

Long ago, there lived three monks. 

When the communists arrived, the paths of these three diverged. Nhat Hanh became world-famous with his Plum Village Monastery. Tri Quang was imprisoned and refrained from speaking about politics again. Quang Do continued the struggle for religious freedom and human rights, ultimately serving the longest period of house arrest of any monk in Vietnam.

1997

One day in October of 1997, in a theater in Berkeley, California, approximately 3,500 people, who paid US$20 a ticket to meet their most beloved monk, sat in silence.

A ringing bell echoed across the theater, and a monk’s voice loudly called out: “All rise!”. Zen Master Nhat Hanh, draped in a deep brown robe, lead 35 monks and nuns as they slowly spread out across the stage. 

Many in the audience clasped their hands before their chests and directed their eyes towards the stage. Sitting on a high podium next to a large, bronze bell and an arrangement of giant sunflowers, Zen Master Nhat Hanh began expounding on mindfulness. “Learn how to stop running,” he advised his audience. “Many of us have been running all our lives.”

“Society is very individualistic, selfish, with people thinking about himself or herself alone. Each for himself, each for herself alone. But in fact even if you have the desire, the intention, to help others, it would still be difficult for you to do so, because when you are not in peace with yourself, it’s very difficult to relate to people in a peaceful way in order to help them,” he stated to reporter Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle.

By that point, Zen Master Nhat Hanh had become internationally renowned for this talks on mindfulness and world peace. After 1975, he stopped speaking to the international media about human rights in Vietnam, even though Buddhism there was suffering through hardship.

At the same time, in a prison cell thousands of miles away from America, Venerable Quang Do was compiling a Buddhist dictionary. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1995 for helping flood victims in the Mekong Delta. Ten years before that, he witnessed his mother pass away in hunger and poverty after the government exiled both to Thai Binh.

In 1997, Venerable Tri Quang grew accustomed to his comfortable life. He no longer spoke about politics or peaceful resistance.

After 1975, he was confined to a wheelchair to heal his feet, which had atrophied after government torture, according to a monk who was imprisoned with him at the time. From the 1980s onwards, the international media stopped mentioning him and the tragedies of Buddhism in the south.

Childhood in chaos 

Born during the tumult of French and Japanese fighting over control of the country, the three monks were all witness to the historical crises of that era.

One day in Diem Dien Village, Quang Binh Province, the mother of Tri Quang met two monks who left a deep impression on her, he relayed in his autobiography. Upon returning home, she told her husband that the family should have someone join the monastery, as the two monks had. Thus, on the eve of the lunar new year in 1938, Tri Quang shaved his head and entered the monastery at Pho Minh Pagoda; he was only 15 years old. The next year, he was transferred to Hue to study for another six years. When he was put in charge of the Quang Binh Province Buddhist Committee for National Salvation (seen as a part of the Viet Minh Front), he saw many of his classmates sacrifice their lives in the resistance war against the French. 

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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in Hue, when he was 16 years old. Source: Plum Village.

In Hue, Nhat Hanh grew up the son of a man who worked for Emperor Bao Dai’s government. Nhat Hanh stated the seed of the Great Buddha blossomed within him from when he was very young. Responding to reporter Don Lattin about his childhood, he stated that while he was studying at the village school, he and his friends would go door-to-door begging for bowls of rice to give to those dying of hunger. He relayed that the kids had to decide early on who would get to eat and who wouldn’t because there simply wasn’t enough rice to go around. In 1942, Zen Master Nhat Hanh left his family and entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue. He was only 16.  

In the same year, a 15-year old teenager in Thai Binh traveled to Ha Dong province (today’s Hanoi) to enter the monastery at Thanh Lam Temple. He took on the Buddhist name Quang Do. He recalled, only three years after he left his family, he witnessed his master tied up and brought out to the village courtyard like a criminal, after the Viet Minh suspected him of being a traitor. His master was then denounced and executed by three bullet rounds. It was then the young 18-year old swore to himself that he would use Buddhism’s mercy, forgiveness, and non-violence to fight against fanatics and the unforgiving.

A united sense of purpose

After the tragedy at Thanh Lam Temple, Thich Quang Do went to study in Hanoi. During this time, Tri Quang and Nhat Hanh likely met one another in Hue. 

At the time, the Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute had just been established in Hue in 1947. A year later, Tri Quang became a teacher there, and Nhat Hanh a student. 

In 1950, Tri Quang went to Saigon for the first time, concurrent with Nhat Hanh. In Saigon, Tri Quang, along with some other monks, unified three Buddhist institutes into one, locating it at An Quang Temple. Nhat Hanh began teaching here.

Both Nhat Hanh and Tri Quang had a common desire to unify Buddhism and develop it into a national religion [1]. Both pursued this desire through journalism. 

After the Geneva Accords were signed in 1954 and the country was temporarily divided in two, Tri Quang became the editor-in-chief of the Vien Am paper. A year later, Nhat Hanh was made editor-in-chief of Vietnamese Buddhism, but after two years, he was forced to suspend the paper after pushing for Buddhist unification too vociferously.

During this time period, both individuals suffered enormous mental anguish. Nhat Hanh was completely “defanged” in his struggle and afterward temporarily withdrew from the limelight, retreating to a solitary location with allies in Lam Dong. Tri Quang, haunted by images of his mother being publicly denounced in 1956, wandered to Nha Trang before returning to Hue in 1960. Buddhism’s suppression (by Ngo Dinh Diem’s government) would add an extra layer of pressure on top of his mother’s tragedy. 

In 1958, Quang Do returned to Saigon after studying abroad in Sri Lanka and India. Under Ngo Dinh Diem’s religiously discriminatory regime, and the conflict brewing between the Nationalists and the Communists hanging over their heads, young Nhat Hanh and Quang Do were not able to accomplish much in the way of big tasks. But it seems all three were able to sense impending disaster for Buddhism in the south. 

In his book Intention’s Road Home, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explained that in 1961, when he and his friends’ place of residence was raided, he had to retreat to Saigon for safety. During this difficult time period, he traveled to the United States, where he conducted research on Buddhism at Princeton University and then taught at Columbia University.

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Pictures of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Venerable Thich Tri Quang, and Venerable Thich Quang Do, taken in 1960. Source: PVCEB, AP, and Vietnamese Buddhists.

Days of struggle

On the night of May 8, 1963, as Venerable Tri Quang, head of central Vietnam’s Buddhist Association, stepped into Hue’s radio station together with the provincial leader to resolve ongoing protests as gunfire rang out among the Buddhist crowds surrounding the station. That night, Hue Radio did not broadcast as promised the program celebrating Vesak, recorded earlier that morning. Compounding popular anger was the fact that the government had prevented the flying of Buddhist flags. The crowds did not disperse until two in the morning. That night, many were seriously injured, resulting in eight deaths.

In the gloom of the next morning, as Venerable Tri Quang was  resting, roiling crowds of young people began filling the streets, holding Buddhist flags. That same day, Buddhists in Saigon decided to establish the Inter-party Committee to Protest Buddhism (abbreviated as the “Inter-party”), confirming a drawn-out struggle. Venerable Tri Quang sat on the Advisory Board, while Venerable Quang Do worked as assistant to the public relations committee of the Inter-party.

The objective of the Inter-party was to get the government to respond to five demands: withdraw the decree banning the flying of Buddhist flags, put Buddhism on equal footing with Catholicism, end the suppression of Buddhist followers, grant Buddhist monks and nuns the freedom to proselytize, and compensate for the deaths caused (during the crisis) and punish those responsible.

In the two days following the incident at the Hue radio station, Buddhists protested spontaneously, but thereafter, they gained a sense of order and organization with Venerable Tri Quang’s direction, the monk recounted in an autobiographical short story. He also found ways for Buddhists to come to Tu Dam Temple to pray each week for those who had passed away. In Saigon, monks organized spiritual processions from one temple to the next, as well as protests and hunger strikes.  

The government only ramped up its repression; many temples in Hue were blockaded, and monks and nuns were publicly attacked. It wasn’t until Venerable Thich Quang Duc, 73, immolated himself on June 11th, 1963 that the situation improved in any meaningful way. Tri Quang traveled from Hue to Saigon to enter into discussions with the government. 

In the weeks and months that followed Venerable Quang Duc’s self-immolation, the Inter-party signed a joint communiqué with the government responding to Buddhism’s five demands. However, the government never implemented the communiqué, greatly angering monks, nuns, and the general population. 

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, at the time he was in America campaigning for religious freedom and a cessation of war in his own homeland. He appeared on television, met journalists, translated materials detailing the human rights violations in Vietnam, and pushed international organizations, including the United Nations, to intervene in the increasingly volatile situation in South Vietnam.

As Thich Tri Quang relayed in his autobiography, on the morning of July 17, 1963, Venerable Quang Do was unable to deliver translated international press updates to Xa Loi Pagoda. That day, countless Buddhists poured into Giac Minh Temple, where the monks were on a hunger strike. These crowds quickly morphed into an enormous protest. As the Buddhist adherents tried to approach Giac Minh Temple, they were blocked by police. Venerable Quang Do was among them, directing the protests to struggle not only against the police barricade but for Buddhism itself. In his book History of the Vietnamese Buddhist Struggle, Monk Tue Giac writes that after 10 am that morning, the protests had devolved into a fighting match with police. Venerable Quang Do suffered a head injury, blood pouring down his face. Any Buddhist who had not been arrested by police returned to Giac Minh Temple, resisting as barbed wire fencing kept more than 600 monks, nuns, and adherents barricaded for 54 hours. 

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Thich Quang Do (circled) directs a protest on the streets of Saigon, July 17h 1963. Source: HORST FAAS/AFP.

By August 20, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government was determined to restore order. A day after martial law was imposed, monks were arrested and adherents attacked. Venerable Quang Do was apprehended. Venerable Tri Quang went to the American Embassy to apply for amnesty. 

From that point until President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination on November 2, 1963, the struggle raged between Buddhists, the Army, and international pressure. 

In December 1963, after the struggle had succeeded, Venerable Tri Quang along with other monks established the Unified Buddhist Church, Venerable Quang Do went overseas for medical treatment, and Venerable Nhat Hanh returned to Saigon. 

While Venerable Tri Quang mobilized Buddhist adherents, monks, and nuns to continue the political struggle, Nhat Hanh was able to fulfill his wish of establishing several campuses, including the La Boi Publishing House, Van Hanh University, the Youth School for Social Services, and the Tiep Hien Congregation (a congregation centered on the full integration of Buddhism into daily life).

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Thich Tri Quang walks among South Vietnamese soldiers in Danang, January 1965. Source: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/CORBIS.

In May 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh headed to the US to campaign for an end to the war in Vietnam. After three months, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home. At the time, Thich Nhat Hanh began becoming world-renowned as the face for peace in Vietnam. The next year, Reverend Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Thich Nhat Hanh on his way to the United States to campaign for the end of war in Vietnam. His trip was originally planned to span three months, but after he left, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home again. Source: PVCEB.

A road diverged three ways

At the beginning of 2005, as the people proudly and warmly greeted his arrival, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was finally able to return home after more than 40 years away, accompanied by a Sangha of approximately 200 adherents. He conducted talks with audiences that included party members in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi. 

Meanwhile, Venerable Quang Do lived in solitary confinement, locked in a room at Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. Across the street were police whose only job was to keep an eye on him day and night. 

During his trip, Zen Master Nhat was able to visit Venerable Tri Quang but not Venerable Quang Do.

In the eyes of the Vietnamese media, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was someone to be immensely proud of, he was “flesh and blood” who had returned to his homeland to further contribute to the people’s well being. Venerable Quang Do, on the other hand, was a boil that the government tried every means to remove. But back then, both monks were cut from the same cloth, up until the day Saigon fell. 

After 1975, as Zen Master Nhat Hanh set up his Plum Village Monastery in France, Venerable Tri Quang was imprisoned for a year and a half in a hole the size of a coffin, which he was only allowed to leave for 15 minutes each day to wash up. From then on, people no longer saw him calling for protests or making demands for Buddhism; the international media was never able to make direct contact with him again for as long as he lived.

After the war, Venerable Quang Do along with a number of other monks fought for those who had self-immolated in the name of religious freedom and in protest of the new regime’s intention to eliminate the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In a country with no international media, no independent courts, and no freedom of association, these efforts would be in vain, the number of immolated corpses perhaps outnumbering that of the old regime. He was never able to reach a compromise with the government, up until the day he died. 

Long ago, there lived three monks: Nhat Hanh, Tri Quang, and Quang Do. When the communists arrived, the lives of these three diverged completely. 

Correction (April 12, 2020): in a version of this article, we had written that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh had entered the monastery at Tu Dam Temple. We wish to correct this to Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue.

Footnote:
[1] See numbers 2 to 28 in Buddhism Magazine, and Intention’s Road Home (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh).

References:

This article was written by Tran Phuong and published by Luat Khoat magazine on April 12, 2020. It was translated by Will A. Nguyen.

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Land Rights

This Land Is Our Land: 100 Years Of Blood Spilled Over Land Rights In Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine

A 100 years have passed in Vietnam, but the people continue to shed their blood over the ownership of their land.

We all wish to live in peace and harmony. But try to imagine, just for once, if we were put into the shoes of the people whose lands are taken away by others, what would we do?

Whether being ruled by the French during colonization or under the dictatorship of the Vietnam Communist Party, the people who lost their land all faced the same despairing fate. One step forward and they could become criminals facing jail sentences or even the death penalty. One step backward and they could lose everything. 

Throughout this 100 years, Vietnamese people have gone from Noc Nan Field to Senh Field, from Ninh Thanh Loi Village to Lac Nhue Village, from the Tay Nguyen Uprising to the Thai Binh Uprising, from Dak Nong Province to Hai Phong Province, and still there is no end in sight for the land ownership disputes.

We will take a look at 10 notorious cases of land disputes in Vietnam over the past 100 years.

A rural area in Rach Gia Province in the 1920’s. Photo courtesy: Manh Hai/Flickr

1. Ninh Thanh Loi, Rach Gia Province

Time of dispute: January to May, 1927

Area of dispute: around 300 acres

Victim: Boss Chot

Offender: A local chief (cai tổng) named Tr.

Fatalities: 24 

Location: Ninh Thanh Loi Village, Phuoc Long District, Rach Gia Province (now located in Bac Lieu Province)

Time after time, local officers seized 90 percent of the agricultural land of this Khmer village. They learned all about the law on land confiscation and also the tricks to get around them. 

At that time, a local chief named “Tr.” ordered the village chief to prepare land confiscation papers. They planned to confiscate a 300-acre plot of land that belonged to a Khmer local boss who was of Chinese origin named Chot. Boss Chot was not an easy target. He sued the village chief and won the case. To protect his land against the local officials, Boss Chot initiated a plan.

In May 1927, a French field supervisor broke up a traditional ritual set up by Chot to boost his men’s spirit. Chot then captured four farmers on the land of the supervisor and took them home. Next, he set up lines of white thread surrounding his land and prohibited any trespassing.

On May 7, 1927, the chief of Phuoc Long District set up an ambush on Chot’s group but neither side suffered any damage. That night, Chot’s men came to the house of local chief Tr. to take revenge but did not find him. They killed his father instead. 

The next fight broke out following an order from the chief of Rach Gia Province, which resulted in six deaths on Chot’s side and three deaths on the side of the authorities. During the final encounter, the vice chief of Can Tho Province sent men to back up Rach Gia. And this time, Chot’s men were completely outnumbered. He, His daughter, and 12 other people were killed right at the scene.

After the incident, the chief of Phuoc Long District and officers of Ninh Thanh Loi Village reported to their superiors that it was an uprising against the state, instead of a land dispute. The French governor disagreed with the claim. He believed Chot’s initial purpose was to fight against the local corrupt officials who robbed his land, and that with just 40 men Chot could not create an uprising against the state. Instead, it must have been a normal land dispute. The French governor recommended that the governor-general of Indochina review the land law for the Khmer people, and pledged to solve land dispute cases in Ninh Thanh Loi Village in a fair manner.

Farmers who were barefooted in Gia Rai District, Bac Lieu Province in the 1920’s.
Photo courtesy: Manh Hai/Flickr

2. Noc Nan Field, Bac Lieu Province

Time of dispute: 1919-1928

Area of dispute: 72.95 acres

Victims: The families of Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc

Offenders: Mother-in-law of a brother of the chief of Gia Rai District

Fatalities: 5

Location: Ninh Thanh Loi Village, Phuoc Long District, Rach Gia Province (now in Bac Lieu province)

A year after the Ninh Thanh Loi Incident, southern Vietnam was again rocked by the Noc Nan case. Confiscated lands represented the blood and bones of the farmers. When pushed against the wall by injustice, they were ready to sacrifice their own lives to keep the land. The Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families did exactly just that for their lands.

After the fight that led to the death of four family members of the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families, and a French policeman, the case was brought to Can Tho Criminal Court. Two French attorneys voluntarily took the case and defended the two families. Most newspapers in Saigon sent their staff to follow the case live in the courtroom.

Before the deadly face-off, the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families had tried all legal means to protest to the authorities but to no avail. They had been working on their agricultural land that was inherited from their grandfather which had a legal leasing paper. Then a Chinese named Ma Ngan secretly plotted with local officers to rob their land.

In 1917, Ma Ngan bought a piece of land next to Bien Toai’s property. He paid extra to the landowner to put into the contract that the purchased area included the Bien Toai family’s land. In 1926, Ma Ngan obtained official legal ownership of the land through bribery. The Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families now suddenly became farmers working for other people but on the land which they always thought was theirs. Meanwhile, Ma Ngan was aware of his dirty tricks so he did not plan to make a big scene out of it. Instead, he silently sold the land to Ho Thi Tr., the mother-in-law of a brother of the chief of Gia Rai District.

Mrs. Tr. then asked the court for an order to collect all taxes on the land by confiscating all the rice produced by the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families. On February 16, 1928, two French policemen accompanied by four soldiers and the village officials carried out the court order on the two families.

At first, Ms. Ut Trong represented the families to monitor the rice calculation process. When the calculation was completed, she asked for an invoice for the rice taken but the group refused and a fight broke out. Members of the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families showed up to fight the authoritie’s men. This resulted in the deaths of one French policeman, three younger brothers of the Bien Toai family named Muoi Chuc, Nhan, and Nhin, together with Nghia, the wife of Muoi Chuc.

In court, even the prosecutors defended the farm families. The French prosecutor stated that the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families were put in incredibly unjust circumstances. Their land was seized by a conman and their rights were ignored by local officers. It was so cruel because the farmers were ordered not only to hand over all of the rice they produced as a tax, but also had to pay extra money for using their own land.

The two attorneys argued that these genial farmers were victims of a legal system built by the French that was full of loopholes which was abused by men in power. 

The court later announced that Bien Toai, his youngest brother, and his son were to be released. Ms. Ut Trong received a six-month sentence, which was the time she had already been held in prison, and so she was also released immediately. Bien Toai’s brother-in-law received a two-year sentence due to his prior record of stealing. 

The court ruling was widely celebrated and reported by newspapers all over southern Vietnam.

Cambodian general Les Kosem who had Cham ethnicity, a leader of FULRO, who were with other Thuong people. Photo courtesy: Documentation Center of Cambodia.

3. The FULRO Uprising, Central Highlands

Time of dispute: 1955-1970

Victims: Indigenous people in Cao Nguyen (Central Highlands) and other areas in southern Vietnam

Offenders: The government of The Republic of Vietnam and migrants

Fatalities: Unknown

Beginning in 1954, the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem carried out an “absolute equality” policy to assimilate all the communities in the Cao Nguyen area. This policy allowed the confiscation of land of the ethnic Thuong people and transfer to Kinh people, the Vietnamese ethnic majority, and banned all traditional customs and rituals in Cao Nguyen. That was a rollback of the previous authority’s policy where the French had granted Cao Nguyen a special autonomy policy. Before, under French rule, the government restricted the migration of ethnic Kinh people to this area, respected the land rights of the locals and prioritized the use of traditional customs to resolve disputes.

After years of peaceful protest without progress, some local people formed a military group called FULRO (United Liberation Front for the Oppressed Races) in 1963. The group represented not only various ethnic peoples in the Central Highlands, but also the Cham and Khmer. They also received support from the Cambodian government. 

Below are some noteworthy incidents.

On September 20, 1964, FULRO men opened fire on a military camp in Buon Me Thuot, captured six American soldiers as prisoners and occupied the radio station. The next day, the force captured an American colonel. In September 1965, FULRO attacked a Vietnamese military camp. In December 1965, Pleiku and Phu Bon were attacked by the force, which led to the authorities carrying out death sentences against four FULRO soldiers.

The years-long conflict put ethnic Kinh people under constant panic. FULRO demanded that the Saigon government carry out many policies, including evicting all the ethnic Kinh out of Cao Nguyen and returning the land to the Thuong ethnicity. It took the Saigon government a great amount of time and effort to settle this racial conflict. They had to implement land policies which gave priorities to the Thuong people.

Mr. Trinh Khai. Photo courtesy: Mai Pham/Facebook.

4. Lac Nhue, Ha Nam Province

Time of dispute: 1990 – 1993

Area of dispute: 75 acres

Victims: Lac Nhue Village

Offenders: Kim Bang district government

Fatalities: 5

Location: Lac Nhue Village, Dong Hoa Parish, Kim Bang District, Ha Nam Province

After so many futile attempts to make appeals for land disputes and against local official corruption, the Lac Nhue village people decided to take matters into their own hands under the leadership of a person whom they all trusted named Trinh Khai. Details about this dispute were scarcely reported since the government wanted to suppress all related information involving the case.

After many years of teaching at the Marine University, Trinh Khai, an engineer who studied in Soviet Russia, retired to his hometown in the early 1990s. At the time, the local officials in Kim Bang District implemented a new agricultural land leasing system. They cut off 75 acres of land in Lac Nhue Village and granted it to another village. Mr. Khai, who had good knowledge of the laws and also experience with the dirty tricks used by local officials, helped the village farmers to make appeals at the parish level, the district and even all the way up to the central government.

After many incidents in which strangers snuck into the village and threatened Mr. Khai and other people’s safety, the villagers decided to build a fortress to protect them from the outside world.

The peak of the conflict came when two young men from outside of the village were beaten to death by villagers in the middle of the night. The villagers believed the authorities sent the men to assassinate Mr. Khai. State media meanwhile reported that these two men were just normal citizens who came to buy fingerlings. 

After this incident, it was reported that Mr. Khai was arrested when he showed up at the parish office to cooperate with the authorities. There was also information stating that the authorities had ordered the police to hunt down and arrest him. In the end, the leader who protected the land rights of the farmers was given a death sentence. According to veteran journalist Pham Thanh, two villagers also died while being held in prison and six others were given jail sentences.

In a nutshell, this incident was no different than the case in Ninh Thanh Loi, except that the current government did not act fairly like the lieutenant governor of Cochinchina in the past. This time, the government did not judge this case in an unbiased manner. Instead, the authorities consistently claimed the Lac Nhue incident was a case of land dispute where people distorted state policies and constituted conspiracies against the state. The government even published novels and made a movie about the incident (titled “The story of Nho Village) to defame Lac Nhue villagers and Mr. Trinh Khai, letting them go down in history in eternal shame.

The building of the People’s Committee of An Ninh Ward, Quynh Phu District, Thai Binh Province which was destroyed by protestors destroyed in the night of June 26, 1997, value was estimated at 800 millions dong. Photo courtesy: Bauxite Vietnam.

5. The Thai Binh Incident, Thai Binh Province

Time of dispute: 1987 – 1997

Victims: Citizens of Thai Binh Province

Offenders: Officials of Thai Binh Province

Fatalities: Unknown

Location: The entire area of Thai Binh Province

In the 1990s, petitions from citizens of Thai Binh Province regarding land issues and local officials’ widespread corruption piled up yet remained unresolved. 

In May 1997, furious after years of being bullied by local officials, a group of army veterans led about 3,000 farmers to stage a sit-in protest in front of the Communist Party’s headquarters in Thai Binh Province. This event led to a series of uprisings demanding justice throughout the province.

Two retired officials told journalist Huu Tho about the root cause of the uprisings: “Do you believe that we are the bad guys or the reactionary force?” he asked. “How could we put up with these officials when they bully us even worse than the feudal landlords?!”

Tens of thousands joined the protests and riots, captured at least 64 officials and policemen as hostages, and vandalised many government buildings and private houses of local officials. The unrest lasted until November 1997. Many people were sentenced to prison for taking part in these protests.

Uprising in the Central Highlands in 2004. Photo courtesy: YouTube.

6. Ethnic Thuong Uprising, Central Highlands

Time of dispute: 2001 – 2004

Victims: Indigenous people in the four provinces of the Central Highlands

Offenders: Authorities, migrants

Fatalities: At least 33

Location: Central Highlands

The Communists learned nothing from the mistakes of the earlier administration of Ngo Dinh Diem. They also understood nothing about the Central Highlands. The government thought this area was still covered with vast uncultivated lands. They then created new economic zones, built vast agricultural farms, and allowed unrestricted migration from other parts of the country. The result was that the land area of the indigenous people was disproportionately scaled back and the native people in the Central Highlands found themselves in unprecedented harsh living conditions.

Researchers Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc and A. Terry Rambo in their 1998 report, The Development Crisis in Vietnam’s Mountains, East-West Center predicted a crisis in the making in the Central Highlands:

“A lot of people in the highland areas start to realize they are poor and left behind. They feel inferior to the people from the lowlands, […]. Lack of money, lack of food, lack of access to natural resources, public services (education, healthcare, information), they are in danger of losing their most valuable assets: their confidence and dignity. […] The problem is more and more people are aware that they are poor.” 

As if pouring gas on a fire, the Communists also destroyed the most sacred thing in the lives of the ethnic Thuong people: religion. The government completely banned religious freedom in the Central Highlands. Traditional rituals were terminated, Protestantism was almost disallowed, and Catholics were stringently restricted. 

A crisis suddenly arose in 2001 and especially in 2004 with the uprising of the ethnic Thuong people. It led to the biggest protests up until then and many violent encounters with the police. The Thuong demanded that the government return their lands and guarantee their freedom of religion. The protests forced thousands of ethnic Thuong either to become refugees in Cambodia or to be sent to education camps and prisons in Vietnam. According to Human Rights Watch, the conflict resulted in eight deaths in the protests and 25 deaths in prisons. However, these figures are impossible to verify since the government prohibited international observers from entering the Central Highlands at the time.

Doan Van Vuon’s land and house were demolished by the government.
Photo courtesy: Thanh Nien newspaper.

7. Doan Van Vuon, Hai Phong Province

Time of dispute: 2009 – 2012

Area of dispute: 19.3 hectares

Victims: The Doan Van Vuon family

Offenders: People’s Committee of Tien Lang District

Location: Vinh Quang Village, Tien Lang District, Hai Phong City

The situation of the Doan Van Vuon family was exactly what the Bien Toai and Muoi Chuc families had faced about 80 years before, but with a different outcome. Although the local officials’ decisions were completely wrong and there were no fatalities in the conflict, the members of the Doan Van Vuon family still faced jail sentences.

Doan Van Vuon, a military veteran, received a five-year sentence while three family members were given sentences ranging from two to five years in prison and suspended sentences.

On the government side, there was only one local official sentenced to 30 years in prison, with the rest given suspended sentences.

The incident started in 2009, when Tien Lang District reclaimed land that had been given to the Doan Van Vuon family. 

In 1993, the local authority handed Vuon’s family 21 hectares and it determined that this decision was legal.

However, in 1997, the local authority handed him another 19.3 hectares and this was later concluded as an illegal decision.

The local authority’s decisions, from the second handing of 19.3 hectares of land to the forced reclaiming of land of the Vuon family, did not have any legal basis. Then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung pointed out that the overlapping and confusing regulations regarding land management and officials’ inability to implement the laws were the root causes of the conflict.

Van Giang farmers during the fight for their land. Photo courtesy: Reuters.

8. Van Giang, Hung Yen Province

Time of dispute: 2012 – now

Area of dispute: 73 hectares 

Victims: A number of families in Cuu Cao Village

Offenders: Government of Van Giang District

Fatalities: 2 

Location: Cuu Cao Village, Van Giang District, Hung Yen Province

The citizens of Van Giang took a step forward to protect their land and they became criminals. In these types of conflicts, when the government sided with corporations (in this case it was Ecopark) to shrink compensation for reclaimed land, the people had no other choice but to stand up and fight.

In April 2012, the authorities sent between 2,000 and 4,000 military police to sweep away a group of citizens who vowed to protect their land. There were 20 citizens arrested after this incident.

In August 2013, a number of families captured and tied up village officials for trespassing on their uncompensated lands. The incident resulted in one man receiving a 21-month sentence and one other receiving a two-year sentence.

In October 2014, two security guards of a backfilling company were beaten to death and one excavator truck was burnt. This led to six people receiving three-to-four year sentences, despite their statements that they neither beat anyone nor vandalized any assets.

From left to right, Dang Van Hien, Ha Van Truong, and Ninh Viet Binh at their trial.
Photo courtesy: Zing. Graphic image: Luat Khoa Magazine.

9. Dang Van Hien, Dak Nong Province

Time of dispute: 2008 – now

Victims: Dang Van Hien and other families

Offenders: Long Son Co.

Fatalities: 3

Location: Small zone no. 1535, Quang Truc Village, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province

This area witnessed many fiere conflicts. There were many fights between migrants and agricultural companies who were offered the land by local authorities. Fist fights, house burnings, field vandalizing, and gun shootings were all familiar to the local people. They chose to rely on themselves to protect the land rather than counting on the authorities.

Dang Van Hien did not want any trouble, but he had no choice. Since 2008, local authorities had offered Long Son Co. an area that included land belonging to Hien and other families. Many violent encounters broke out over the years between the company and the families, yet all levels of government, from province to state, looked away.

One early morning in October 2016,about 30 people came to Hien’s house in a heavy rain to bulldoze his farm. Hien opened fire that day. Ninh Viet Binh, a neighbor, came to back him up. Ha Van Truong, Hien’s cousin, later was also accused of murder, despite the fact that he only handed Hien the bullet magazines.

The incident resulted in the deaths of three workers of the Long Son Co. In court, Hien was given a death sentence, Binh received a 20-year sentence later reduced to 18-years jail time, while Truong was given a 12-year sentence, later reduced to a 9-year prison sentence.

Mr. Le Dinh Kinh. Photo courtesy: Dong Tam TV.

10. Dong Tam, Hanoi

Time of dispute: 2014 – now

Area of dispute: 28.7 hectares

Victims: A number of families in Dong Tam

Offenders: The authorities of My Duc District and Viettel Corporation

Fatalities: 4

Location: Dong Tam Village, My Duc District, Hanoi 

From Dang Van Hien to Doan Van Vuon, from Van Giang District to Dong Tam Village, the message of the Vietnam government could not be clearer: despite their lives being threatened, despite their lands being taken away, the people still have no right to fight back. Any act of defiance that creates damage to the authority’s side will be severely punished, whether the government is right or wrong.

Twenty-nine defendants in the Dong Tam case, including a 77-year old man, were forced to fight back against thousands of police ambushing their village in the middle of the night. Since 2007, there have been many violent incidents in Dong Tam yet the government has been unable to resolve the issue in a fair manner.

The government of Vietnam used to denounce the brutality of French colonial rule. However, nearly 100 years ago under French rule, the trial of the Noc Nan field case was open and the press freely took part, reported and conducted independent investigations. Meanwhile, 100 years later, the trial for the Dong Tam Incident was closed and family members of the defendants were not allowed to even get near the court. Independent press was barred from entering the courtroom, and the attorneys were prohibited from making contacts with the defendants at trial.

***

If there is no fundamental change in the land law in Vietnam to allow the private ownership of land, blood may still be shed over land issues for another 100 years.

This article was written in Vietnamese by An Nam and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Y Chan.

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Recap: Sentencing in the Dong Tam Trial

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All Defendants in the Dong Tam trial at the sentencing. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

As reported earlier, after four days of a predicted 10-day trial, the Hanoi People’s Tribunal took a recess beginning on the afternoon of September 10 to deliberate. At 3 pm on September 14, 2020, an initial verdict was announced.

These are the details of the sentencing and the developments surrounding them:

The range of initial sentences

The Tribunal sentenced Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc to death for the crime of murder. 

Also prosecuted for murder was Le Dinh Doanh, who was sentenced to life in prison. Three other defendants who were charged with murder received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 16 years.

The 23 remaining defendants were prosecuted for obstruction of officials. Among them, nine received prison sentences ranging from three to six years, and the remaining 14 were sentenced to between 15 to 36 months of probation. 

Compared to the recommendations by the Hanoi People’s Procuracy, the Tribunal’s sentencing only differed in granting 7 defendants probation instead of prison time.

Noteworthy is that while nearly all of the defendants received sentences equal to or lesser than the Procuracy’s recommendations, Bui Thi Noi received a heavier sentence than what was recommended.

The Procuracy recommended 4 to 5 years of prison for Bui Thi Noi. The Tribunal sentenced her to 6. 

Bui Thi Noi, adopted daughter of Mr. Le Dinh Kinh, who died in the early morning attack on January 9, directly challenged the Tribunal during questioning on the second day of the trial, asking: “We have laws, but why are they not carried out? Why was my father (Le Dinh Kinh) lured out to a field and his leg broken, instead of being arrested properly…?” 

When the presiding judge asked Noi three times why she bought gasoline, Noi responded “I bought gasoline to burn the corrupt!”

The court’s determinations

As reported by Thanh Nien, the Tribunal determined “This was a serious criminal case that [was] particularly dangerous, denigrating the law and human life.” Judges assessed that “the defendants’ behaviors were extremely barbaric, cruel, and inhumane.”

According to information from Zing, the Tribunal also required the ring-leading defendants to compensate each victim’s family 116 million dong (US$5000) and provide child support to the deceased police officers’ children until they all reach the age of 18. 

Responses from lawyers and relatives of the defendants

Speaking with RFA, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Duyen, Le Dinh Kinh’s granddaughter-in-law, stated: “To be honest, I’m not very surprised and had already mentally prepared myself. I knew for certain they would keep the sentencing as is.”

“The next steps must be taken gradually; there’s simply no way to change [the government’s] hearts or minds,” she continued. “It will most certainly force [those] Dong Tam residents to suffer through long prison sentences.”

Lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng, on the other hand, asserted: “There is not enough evidence to conclude that those three [police officers] died because of Chuc, Cong, and the others. Handing out two death sentences and a life imprisonment is completely unreasonable!”

Mieng shared the view that all four deaths must be re-investigated.

Appeals and future developments

Le Dinh Cong and Le Dinh Chuc, who were both sentenced to death, stated that they would appeal.

We have provided an analysis here regarding the next possible developments in this case.

If at any point, a defendant, victim, or his or her representative appeals, the case will be forced into retrial. The entire case will be presented and re-tried in a higher court, which in this instance is the People’s Supreme Court in Hanoi. 

According to the law, the deadline for retrial ranges approximately from December 2020 to January 2021.

In the meantime, the Procuracy, defendants, and lawyers have the right to provide additional evidence.

Lawyers and relatives still have the right to see the defendants. Other individuals and organizations (journalists, social organizations, international organizations) are also able to submit requests to see the defendants.

***

This article was written in Vietnamese by Y Chan and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.

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The Dong Tam Case: What happens next?

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Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency. Graphic image: Luat Khoa Magazine

On September 14, 2020, the Hanoi People’s Court delivered the judgments in the trial of the Dong Tam case.

What will happen next?

First of all, we need to understand this is a first-instance trial and the judgments have not yet come into force. The enforcement of criminal judgments therefore is not yet initiated. 

Appeal

Within 15 days of the first-instance trial’s verdict, which is from September 14-29, 2020, there are two possible scenarios. 

(Note: According to the instruction from the Supreme People’s Court, the time limit for appeal is calculated from the day after the verdict is delivered, which is September 15, 2020.)

1. If the rulings are not appealed, they will automatically come into force on the 16th day after the verdict was delivered, which will be on September 30, 2020. The sentence enforcement procedure will also be initiated on that day. 

2. If the rulings are appealed:

  • Appeal by the defendants: If any of the defendants, victims or their representatives appeal against the rulings, the case will move into the appellate trial phase. The whole trial will be restarted. In this case, the time limit for making an appeal is September 29, 2020. 

If an appeal is filed beyond the 15-day limit, the appellate court can still consider it permissible “on condition that the appellant has been obstructed by force majeure or objective obstacles from lodging an appeal within the time limit as defined by this Law.” (Article 335, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code)

  • Appeal by the Procuracy: If the Hanoi People’s Procuracy appeals against all or parts of the judgments, the case will also move into the appellate trial phase.
  • Appeal by the Supreme People’s Procuracy in Hanoi: according to law, they have a 30-day limit to appeal the rulings after the verdict was delivered.

What is an appellate trial?

According to Article 330, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, “Appellate trial means that the immediate superior Court re-tries a case or re-considers the decisions passed by the first instance trial, whose judgments and rulings pronounced for the case are appealed before coming into force.”

In other words, all or parts of the rulings will be re-considered by the immediate superior court.

What is the superior court in this case?

The Supreme People’s Court in Hanoi

When will the appellate trial take place?

At the moment, there is no detailed instruction document on how to calculate the time frame to open the appellate trial, but based on the 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, we can estimate a number of markers for what happens next:

  • Within 75 days upon the admission of a case, the Supreme People’s Court in Hanoi has to issue a decision to hear the appellate case. Therefore, we can estimate in case of appeal, that the last day to issue the decision will be December 13, 2020 (Sunday). Since it is a non-working day, the time limit can be extended to December 14, 2020 (Monday).
  • Within 15 days upon issuing the decision to hear the appellate case, the court has to start the appellate trial. Therefore, we can estimate in case of appeal the last day to start the appellate trial will be December 29, 2020 (Monday).
  • Within 10 days upon issuing the decision to hear the appellate case, the court has to send this decision to the Procuracy–which is on an equal level of hierarchy–and to the defense counsels, crime victims, litigants and protectors of legitimate rights and benefits of crime victims, litigants, appellants, persons incurring interests and duties from the appeal. The last day of this time frame will be December 23, 2020 (Monday).
  • The court can delay the appellate trial for no more than 30 days, which means the last day in this case could be on January 28, 2021 (Wednesday).

In practice, however, the court can violate the time limit regulations. The appellate trial therefore can be delayed to a much later time than the above estimated number of days.

While awaiting the appellate trial, what can happen?

  • The Supreme People’s Court can make decisions on changing or terminating preventive measures such as detention. Although practically, there is no possibility some defendants will be released on bail awaiting the appellate trial, yet it is still an available legal option.
  • If the appellants withdraw the appeals, the court will suspend the appellant trial. In practice, this is also unlikely. 
  • The Procuracy, the defendants and their lawyers can submit additional evidence.
  • The lawyers and family members are entitled to meet the defendants. Other individuals, organizations (the media, social organizations, international organization, etc.) can file proposals to meet with the defendants.

In order to better understand this case, we need to study thoroughly the Law on temporary detention and custody.

What are the possible outcomes of the appellate trial?

According to Article 355, 2015 Criminal Procedure Code, the possible outcomes of an appellate trial could be:

  • Reject appeals and sustain the first-instance court’s judgments;
  • Alter the first-instance trial’s judgments;  
  • Annul the first-instance court’s judgment and send the case back for re-investigation or retrial;
  • Annul the first-instance trial’s judgments and dismiss the case;  
  • Terminate the appellate trial if the appellants withdraw their appeals.

In case of altering the first-instance trial’s judgments, if the appeals are filed by the defendants, the appellate court cannot deliver a harsher sentence than what has already been given to the defendants.

In case of altering the first-instance trial’s judgments, if the appeals are filed by the procuracy or the crime victims, the appellate court can deliver rulings that are disadvantageous to the defendants.

What may happen after the appellate trial?

The rulings from the appellate trial will come into force immediately.

If the appellate court sustains the first-instance trial’s judgments, or alters the judgments but sustains the sentences, the enforcement procedure will be initiated. The defendants become convicts (serve jail sentences, face death penalties). In this case, one must study thoroughly the Law on execution of criminal judgments.

The convicts with death sentences still have a chance to file pardon petition for commutation of death sentence with the state president (within 7 days after the appellate rulings were delivered), petition for a cassation trial, or file for a retrial of the case.

If the appellate court chooses to delivers other outcomes, then there are corresponding legal options for each scenario.

***

This article was written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Y Chan.

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